Your Guide to the Best Pre-Workout Ingredients

by P S | Reviewed by Advisory Board

Your Guide to the Best Pre-Workout Ingredients

To take your exercise performance to the next level, it’s essential to use the best pre-workout ingredients.

But once you dive into the realm of pre-workout supplements, you realize the options are endless.

The hard part is sifting through the marketing, exaggerated performance claims, and opinions of gym-goers. The best way to decide is to learn about the ingredients found in pre-workouts and why they work.

This essential guide will dive into the science behind the best pre-workout ingredients and analyze some of the leading formulas on the market.

The 10 Best Pre-Workout Ingredients

There are hundreds of dietary supplement ingredients that promise to boost workout performance and recovery, but only a few have evidence-backed benefits.

Don’t worry — we compiled a list of the 10 best pre-workout ingredients and their effective dosages.

Most of these ingredients can be found in the Transparent Labs PreSeries line up, but not all since some have overlapping benefits (making them unnecessary to combine).

1. Citrulline Malate

Citrulline molecule formula


L-citrulline is a popular ingredient in pre-workout supplements due to its ability to raise nitric oxide levels even more than L-arginine [1]. 

When nitric oxide production increases, blood flow improves and allows both nutrients and oxygen to travel faster in the body. This energizes you and allows you to work out longer.

While L-citrulline is ideal for bodybuilders, other athletes may get more significant benefits from L-citrulline malate — the salt form of malic acid and L-citrulline.

Malic acid is a useful compound involved in energy production. When paired with citrulline, your circulation, cellular energy, and muscular endurance improve.

This noticeably improves physical performance, helping you achieve your fitness goals faster [2]. Additionally, research has found that citrulline malate also enhances the ergogenic effects of branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) supplements [3].

It isn't uncommon for citrulline to be replaced with L-arginine, beetroot, or agmatine sulfate to support nitric oxide production. When dosed appropriately, these ingredients will increase circulation and blood flow to skeletal muscle. However, citrulline and citrulline malate tend to be the most effective of the bunch.

Studies indicate that 4-8 grams of citrulline malate is the optimal dosage before a workout [4]. However, most products on the market contain around 2 grams due to its cost.

2. Beta-Alanine

Beta-alanine is an often misunderstood and under-dosed sports nutrition ingredient. When supplemented properly, beta-alanine increases muscle carnosine levels, thereby creating a buffer that helps neutralize lactic acid build-up [5].

A study on the effects of beta-alanine supplementation showed a significant increase in total bench press volume and a reduced feeling of fatigue compared to the placebo group [6].

However, to have this desirable effect, beta-alanine dosing needs to be sufficient. Experts claim that 4-6 grams is the ideal daily dosage for beta-alanine supplementation [7]. Most brands under-dose beta-alanine or reduce your servings because the ingredient is expensive.

This pre-workout ingredient doesn't necessarily need to be taken right before exercise. If you consistently take beta-alanine the same way you take creatine, your carnosine concentrations will remain effectively elevated throughout the day.

3. Betaine

Betaine molecule formula


Betaine anhydrous
, aka trimethylglycine, is a molecule derived from beetroot.

Betaine increases water retention within the cells (i.e., it’s an osmolyte), offering cellular protection when in normal conditions the cells would be damaged from physical stressors. It also works as a methyl donor, impacting vital physiological processes from DNA replication to protein function [8].

The benefits of betaine include:

  1. Improved body composition [9]
  2. Increase power output and force [10]
  3. Improved muscle endurance [11]
  4. Increased bench press repetition and force [12]

Betaine has an impressive list of clinical support and is one of the best (and most under-hyped) pre-workout ingredients.

4. Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) are one of the most common ingredients found in pre-workout supplements. BCAAs are a combination of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine

BCAAs have been shown to effectively prevent muscle soreness and wasting, especially in reduced calorie protocols. BCAA supplementation increases energy levels, improves stamina, and slows muscle glycogen depletion during exercise [13].

Leucine is widely considered the most important of the three, working to activate the mTOR pathway responsible for protein synthesis. One study showed a significant power increase with leucine supplementation [14].

And while isoleucine was shown to increase glucose intake in the muscle cells, valine's effects are less clear [15]. However, it's commonly believed that valine reduces tryptophan metabolism, resulting in greater energy and stamina during workouts.

5. L-Theanine + Caffeine

Coffee beans and tea leaves


We all know the energizing effects of caffeine
supplementation. We can feel it kick in minutes after drinking a cup of coffee. Yet, many aren’t aware that  L-theanine — an amino acid in green tea — augments the beneficial cognitive effects of caffeine [16].

Therefore, pairing L-theanine with caffeine in the evidence-based 2:1 ratio produces impressive results compared to caffeine consumption alone. 

L-theanine and caffeine work together to improve reaction time, focus, cognition, and mental performance [17].

Although caffeine is unique in the way it immediately kick-starts your energy levels, be mindful of the slippery slope of your tolerance. Many people fall victim to ever-increasing caffeine dosage in pre-workouts.

We suggest staying below 3000 mg of caffeine per day. Too much caffeine can cause heart issues, tremors, restlessness, and anxiety. Pairing caffeine anhydrous with L-theanine can help lessen the side effects of caffeine consumption.

6. CDP-Choline and Alpha-GPC

There are three primary forms of choline: choline bitartrate, CDP-choline, and alpha-GPC. While choline bitartrate may sound familiar — especially if you're into nootropics — you may not be up to speed on alpha-GPC and CDP-choline.

In contrast to choline bitartrate, alpha-GPC and CDP-choline are highly bioavailable sources of choline that enhance mental acuity and physical performance [18].

Choline is an essential B vitamin that the body needs to create the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which plays a major role in cognitive function. Unfortunately, choline is commonly lacking in the modern diet; In fact, 94% of the adults in one study had choline deficiency [19]. As such, taking a choline supplement is generally wise even if you’re not an avid gym-goer.

7. elevATP®

Synephrine molecule formula


Not only has
elevATP® been shown to increase blood ATP concentrations by as much as 50% after a single oral dose. It also works with caffeine to increase energy and boost athletic performance [20, 21, 22].

Recommended daily dose ranges from 150 mg to 300 mg.

8. Acetyl L-Carnitine

Acetyl L-carnitine (ALCAR) is the more powerful acetylated version of L-carnitine, an important molecule that transports fatty acids into mitochondria so they can be used as energy.

ALCAR was shown to reduce the symptoms of muscle damage and oxidative stress after resistance training in trained adult males [27].

Here at Transparent Labs, the inclusion of this ingredient and others like L-tyrosine and alpha-GPC is how we can keep the caffeine content low in BULK and LEAN but still provide the energy and focus enhancements users expect from a pre-workout supplement.

9. Taurine

Taurine molecule formula


Although basic, familiar, and old-school,
taurine should not be overlooked as an essential pre-workout ingredient.

Taurine is a potent brain booster that works with caffeine while activating GABA receptors, reducing brain cell inflammation and oxidative stress [23]. 

It also works to positively improve blood flow, helping to deliver muscle repair nutrients throughout the body while having no negative impact on blood pressure [24, 25].

If you wonder why taurine should be a pre-workout component, oral taurine supplementation (1-2 g) has been shown to have an overall improvement in human endurance performance [26].

Taurine is considered safe, as it's created naturally in the body and found in many foods, such as seafood, poultry, and beef.

10. Astragin™

Astragin™  is a water-soluble extract of Panax notoginseng and Astragalus membranaceus two promising adaptogenic herbs with longstanding medicinal use [28].

So, how does this ingredient work?

The constituents in these plants are suggested to selectively increase the absorption of molecules by enhancing intestinal permeability [29]. In other words, Astragin™ helps your body absorb the other ingredients in your pre-workout supplement, making them more effective.

    The Ultimate Bulking Pre-Workout Supplements

    We believe our products are the best pre-workouts you can buy. We formulate each in accordance with clinical studies, without regard to ingredient cost. 

    We have included products that are not our own because we respect their formulas. 

    Bulking pre-workouts are best at increasing workout performance, endurance, muscle growth, and recovery. If these are your goals, then bulking supplements are the best option for you — unless you're looking to lose weight and follow a calorie deficit diet.

    1. Transparent Labs PreSeries BULK

    Pre workout ingredients: Bottle of Transparent Labs PreSeries BULK supplements


    PreSeries BULK
    is a powerful pre-workout, with each ingredient maxed and matched to clinical studies. By using a full clinical dose of citrulline malate, beta-alanine, betaine, and BCAAs, BULK will provide a pumped look and endurance over any other product and is considered by hundreds of thousands to be the best pre-workout on the market.

    BULK also contains a well-balanced dose of caffeine (180mg), paired at the clinically backed 2:1 ratio of L-theanine to caffeine. This provides a clean energy feel, without jitters or power crashes.

    Perhaps the biggest mistake pre-workout companies make is over-caffeinating their products. This causes long term adrenal fatigue and the need to continually up the dosage. A properly formulated pre-workout does not need excessive amounts of caffeine.

    What we like: 

    • A full dose of citrulline malate in a 2:1 ratio with L-norvaline for extended nitric oxide
    • Fermented vegan BCAAs
    • The highest dose of beta-alanine (full clinical dose)
    • L-theanine + caffeine in a 2:1 ratio
    • No food dyes, no artificial sweeteners, or flavors
    • Testosterone support complex (with vitamin D, Zinc, and Boron)

    What we don't like:

    Nothing. This is the premier pre-workout option, with the closest matched ingredient dosages to clinical studies.

    New customers get 10% off: Click here to sign up!

    2. JYM Supplements Pre JYM High Performance Pre-Workout

    Pre workout ingredients: Bottle of JYM Supplements Pre JYM High Performance Pre-Workout supplements


    Jim Stoppani knows his stuff. We have nothing but respect for the
    JYM series lineup.  

    What we like:

    • A full dose of citrulline malate
    • Alpha GPC and huperzine A. This is a potent nootropic formulation that should have a strong impact on focus. Huperzine A has been known for causing nauseousness and dizziness, so if you feel these effects, discontinue use.
    • Extra leucine

    What we don't like:

    • Pre JYM underdoses beta-alanine and betaine. These might be the two best ingredients for increasing workout performance.
    • The sugar included (2 grams)
    • The small dose of creatine
    • Too much caffeine (300 mg). With a little more beta-alanine, betaine, taurine, etc., they wouldn't need to overcompensate with caffeine.

    NOTE: Creatine is one of the BEST supplemental ingredients for increasing muscle mass, probably only second to protein. However, research suggests that caffeine may inhibit the uptake of creatine. For that reason, we recommend taking a stand-alone creatine product spaced out at least four hours from pre-workout supplements [30].

    3. Cellucor C4 Ultimate

    Pre workout ingredients: Bottle of Cellucor C4 Ultimate supplements


    We give C4 (Original) a hard time. In fact, it is our go-to comparison product because of how bad it is vs. Many people buy it because they are merely uninformed.

    However, if you are loyal to the Cellucor brand, C4 Ultimate is decently formulated. The downside is, you pay for it. Twenty servings at $40 — more expensive per serving and per gram than both the above products. 

    What we like:

    • A full dose of citrulline malate
    • 3.2 grams of beta-alanine

    What we don't like:

    • Partial Proprietary blend (energy). Half of the formula is transparent, and the other half is proprietary. This may be a way to hide under-dosed ingredients (most likely TeaCrine® and AlphaSize®)
    • No BCAAs
    • Excessive caffeine (300 mg)

    The Best Weight Loss Pre-Workout Products

    Pre-workouts make for much better muscle builders and endurance enhancers than fat burners. However, if formulated correctly, pre-workouts can also help preserve muscle mass during a calorie deficit diet.

    1. Transparent Labs PreSeries LEAN

    Pre workout ingredients: Bottle of Transparent Labs PreSeries LEAN supplements


    The essential element of a good cutting
    pre-workout — such as our LEAN supplement — is its ability to prevent muscle wasting. While in a calorie deficit, your body will not only burn fat for fuel but muscle as well. It’ll break down muscle tissue to release amino acids. You can limit this with BCAAs.

    What we like: 

    • Two grams of BCAA 2:1:1 (fermented and vegan) to assist in preventing muscle wasting and workout recovery
    • The inclusion of synephrine - an ingredient shown to increase RMR (resting metabolic rate) by 65-183 kcal [31]
    • A full 6 grams citrulline malate 2:1 + L-Norvaline for extended nitric oxide production
    • No food dyes, no artificial sweeteners, or flavors
    • Thyroid support complex — which plays a role in metabolism and energy

    New customers get 10% off TL supplements: Click here to sign up!

    2. Mr. Hyde NitroX

    Pre workout ingredients: Bottle of Mr. Hyde NitroX supplements


    Mr. Hyde’s NitroX
    supplement promises laser-sharp focus, increased power, and more endurance during your workout sessions.

    What we like:

    • 2.5 grams of beta-alanine
    • Blended caffeine sources (anhydrous, di-caffeine malate, caffeine citric acid blend)
    • Choline bitartrate (same as the one found in our LEAN products). Great for focus

    What we don't like:

    • This product is over-stimulated with 378 mg of blended caffeine. This might give you that crazy hyped feel but only for a few days. It may end up leaving you exhausted during non-training days.
    • Under-dosed pump ingredients. This has one-sixth of the pump power of PreSeries LEAN.
    • Food dyes and sucralose

      3. EVLution Nutrition ENGN Shred

      Pre workout ingredients: Bottle of EVLution Nutrition ENGN Shred supplements


      ENGN Shred
      is a big seller, but the ingredient profile just doesn't stack up to most pre-workouts. At only 7.7 grams a scoop, you can be sure most of the ingredients are underdosed.

      What we like: 

      • Beta-alanine — underdosed, but happy to have some in this formula
      • Green tea extract — a decent fat burner

      What we don't like:

      • Nothing to boost nitric oxide
      • A proprietary formula that may hide under-dosed ingredients (like betaine, choline bitartrate,L-tyrosine)
      • Food dyes and sucralose

      The Best 3 Stimulant-Free Pre-Workout Supplements

      Many people wrongly assume that pre-workouts are only good for boosting energy through stimulants like caffeine. This is simply not true.

      Be sure to read the ingredient section below to dive into these popular stim-free pre-workouts' science and effectiveness.

      1. Transparent Labs PreSeries STIM-FREE

      Pre workout ingredients: Bottle of Transparent Labs PreSeries STIM-FREE supplements


      Our
      Preseries STIM-FREE is packed with a full dose of each citrulline, beta-alanine, BCAAs, and betaine. It’s similar to BULK but with an added boost of creatine HCl — since there is no caffeine to inhibit uptake.

      What we like:

      • A full dose of citrulline malate 2:1 paired with L-norvaline for extended nitric oxide
      • A full clinical dose of beta-alanine, betaine, and BCAAs
      • No artificial sweeteners, food dyes, or artificial flavoring

      2. Genius Pre

      Pre workout ingredients: Bottle of Genius Pre supplements


      The main pre-workout ingredients in
      this supplement are nootropics. Genius argues that your body works better when your head is in the game.

      What we like:

      • A full dose of citrulline malate 2:1
      • ElevATP is an interesting ingredient for power output with a lot of promise, but more studies are needed.
      • AlphaGPC is a powerful nootropic with evidence supporting increased power-output. It is one of the more efficient choline sources, but at 150mg, it is dosed pretty low. Choline bitartrate is cheaper, but when appropriately dosed, can be equally powerful.

      What we don't like:

      • Less beta-alanine and betaine than our PreSeries mentioned above
      • Though it’s caffeine-free, theobromine is still a stimulant
      • No BCAAs

        3. NutraBio Pre Stim-Free

        Pre workout ingredients: Bottle of NutraBio Pre Stim-Free supplements


        The
        NutraBio Pre Stim-Free formula promises quicker recoveries after intense workouts, sharper focus, and increased endurance and power.

        What we like:

        • A full dose of citrulline (6 grams), a full dose of beta-alanine at 3.2 grams (only slightly less than PreSeries), and a full dose of betaine
        • A full dose of tyrosine and choline bitartrate
        • Full label disclosure

        What we don't like:

        • Including agmatine (we like agmatine, but it does not play well with citrulline)
        • Huperzine A is often considered dangerous.
        • This is the most expensive of the three ($40/20 servings). PreSeries Stim-Free is a better value.
        • Sucralose and artificial flavoring

          How to Find the Best Workout Drinks

          When evaluating a pre-workout, first look at the ingredient profile. 

          If the formula is proprietary, put it back on the shelf. Most of the time, proprietary formulas are a tool for hiding a cheap, under-dosed formula.

          Two more quick things to look for:

          1. The number of servings. Many expensive pre-workouts will trick you into thinking they are more affordable by only offering 20-22 servings. Don't be fooled. Having fewer servings is not necessarily bad, but it can be deceiving when assessing value.
          2. The serving size. Many cheap pre-workouts will have tiny scoops. This should be a big red flag, especially if you are looking for pump and recovery ingredients.

          We've found that price per gram is the best indicator of value in any pre-workout (with minor exceptions to account for excessive fillers, flavors, sweeteners, etc.). More doesn't always mean better, but you can do a base judgment on the cost of a pre-workout based on its total scoop size and number of servings.

          Value is one metric, but ingredients and effectiveness are another.

          Choose the Best Pre-Workout Ingredients 

          Pre-Workout supplement powder ingredient


          You should now have the tools to understand what your workout supplement should and should not contain, and the optimal doses of each ingredient.

          If you're interested in supplementing your diet for better athletic performance, consider reading this comprehensive comparison between whey protein concentrate and isolate to fully understand which one better fits your goals.

          And if you’re looking to take your workouts to the next level, check out the new Transparent Labs PreSeries Stim-Booster. With a perfectly-balanced formula that includes pure L-citrulline, essential B vitamins, and caffeine, this pre-workout enhancement supplement may be just what you’ve been looking for to achieve your fitness goals.

          Transparent Labs pre workout supplements

           




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